Being There: Reflections on Ways of Experiencing JazzSeptember 19, 2020
“I remember the only time i ever saw Chet Baker. It was at Parnell’s, a jazz club in Pioneer Square in Seattle, long since defunct. It was a few years before Baker died under mysterious circumstances, in Amsterdam in 1988, after a life of creativity, notorious dissipation, and addiction.
Emaciated, with a caved-in face, he already looked near death. He played like an angel. I remember something that happened to me toward the end of the night. Sometimes last sets in jazz clubs, when the crowd has thinned, seem to exist outside of time. There came a moment when, almost alone with Baker’s soft trumpet glow, in the presence of a lyricism ethereal as mist, I suddenly felt like I had been taken out of my body. It was a feeling of surpassing peacefulness. I had been released from the bondage of self. This instance of spiritual liberation came at the hands of a junkie, but the only drug involved was music.
I have often thought that such moments made me a music collector and an audiophile. I wanted to be able to repeat that experience, and others like it. I wanted to be able to choose the sensation of being there. For me, and I suspect for many readers of this magazine, that desire leads to the acquisition of better and better playback equipment and more and more recorded music. It also leads to the realization that recorded music varies enormously in its sonic quality and character, and therefore in its ability to provide the illusion of being there.
This is a story about one audiophile’s pursuit. The subject is large. I could focus on gear, talk about my first, worst, best-loved music system—it was a KLH Model Eleven—and the many increasingly expensive systems I have owned since. I could discuss my permanent, ongoing search for the right jazz recordings (since jazz is my drug of choice).
Instead, I will attempt to understand—and in so doing convey—a narrower, more specific, sometimes elusive truth: that in the experience of recorded music, the quality of the music and the quality of the recorded sound are interdependent.
As a practical matter, Stereophile provides two ratings with every record review: “performance” and “sonics.” But they are not entirely separable. The illusion of being there requires both. This story deals with some jazz albums that meet those requirements—excellence in both performance and sonics—and seeks to understand how those records got made.
This may be the time to remind ourselves of an obvious fact: That sense of being there is indeed an illusion. A recording is a reproduction. Italians have a good name for a recording: “registrazione,” or “registration.” Keith Jarrett, a skeptic, has a different word. He has said that a recording is like a “fax” of a concert. But whether a recording is a reproduction or a registration or a fax, the point is to make it seem real, to get as close to being there as possible.
Since the 1970s, one label has been famous for making people aware that some jazz recordings sound better than others: ECM. Thousands of pages, in many languages, have been written about “the ECM sound,” but no commentator has isolated its particular magic. No one has been able to explain fully why, when an ECM album begins, a hush descends on your listening room.
The ECM sound is grounded in the aesthetic consciousness of legendary producer Manfred Eicher. But the label’s culture is so strong that its sonic identity is sustained across a range of musical styles, engineers, studios, and producers.
Case in point: Steve Lake. As a member for decades of ECM’s inner circle in Munich, he writes the label’s press materials and liner notes. He has been called “ECM’s undercover producer.” He supervised the March 2019 session for the remarkable album Three Crowns by Polish alto saxophonist Maciej Obara. (ECM excels at finding the emerging badasses of European jazz.) The engineer was Gérard de Haro, and the studio was La Buissonne, in Pernes-les-Fontaines, France.
On Three Crowns, the opening hesitant, widely spaced piano notes by Dominik Wania and the first plaintive saxophone call from Obara set a rapt atmosphere that is never broken, even when the music grows turbulent later on. As a listener, you’re immersed in the aura. Everything that happens, including the swirling, shimmering cymbals of drummer Gard Nilssen, deepens the drama.
I asked Lake to provide some insight into how he conceives of his role of producer, within the ECM aesthetic. From Munich, he responded: “Commitment and focus are the primary qualities needed. I think one of the things that Manfred is very good at . . . is the goal of keeping projects on their particular artistic and musical trajectory. The idea is that an album is a story unfolding, and you have to be faithful to its plot line. It doesn’t have to be a straightforward narrative, and there may be detours, or flashbacks, or dream sequences, but the thing is still moving forward with a sense of integral cohesion.”
As for what the ECM sound is and how it’s produced, Lake said that he is probably “too close to the subject”: “Not many people have heard all 1700 ECM recordings, but I have.” If he had to identify “common denominators,” ideas like “clarity” and “transparency” would come up. (Those terms should ring true to all who have loved the ECM sound.) He quoted an avantgarde trumpet player who never recorded for ECM: “‘It’s a matter of following the sound.’ Donald Ayler said that, and I think it’s worth adopting as a motto. To be able to follow the sound, as a listener and as a player, you need to be able to hear what is going on. ECM productions . . . have illuminated the detail in the music in new ways.”
ECM is not the only label that can foster vivid illusions of being there. Consider “I Fall in Love Too Easily” from the Fred Hersch album Alive at the Vanguard, on Palmetto. There’s no place most jazz fans would rather visit, vicariously or otherwise, than the Village Vanguard, the most revered jazz club in the world and a famously fortunate acoustic space in which to record music. (To date, 156 albums —and counting —have been made there.) Hersch’s clear piano notes enter and then linger in the room, which comes fully alive when John Hébert’s deep, warm bass looms over the melody. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to put yourself at one of those tiny white tables, in perhaps the second row.
Tyler McDiarmid recorded the album, working with his frequent collaborator Geoffrey Countryman. McDiarmid has become one of the busiest jazz engineers in New York and therefore the world. Like many engineers, he started as a musician (further proof of the unity of “performance” and “sonics”). He has a master’s degree in jazz studies from NYU. He has been a lead technician on Saturday Night Live for six seasons. “I never studied engineering officially,” he told me. “I learned on the job.” When asked the eternal jazz question—which are better, live or studio recordings —he answered, “Live recordings are where I started. I do a lot of studio work now, but if I had to choose, I prefer live. The mentality is completely different. In a studio, even with a band that is not 100% rehearsed, by the time you get to the second or third track, there’s usually something missing. You’ve lost that first-take feeling. Musicians play a little differently in a studio when they know that something can be fixed. And nine times out of 10, they’re not in the same room with each other.”
As for recording in the Vanguard: “Most jazz clubs are subpar, acoustically, and you’ve got to try to make it work. But the Vanguard just sounds good. It sounds natural in there, to begin with. Still, players are close together on that stage and things are going to spill into other things, for sure. So it’s about learning where to place the mikes. Where we put the room mikes really makes a big difference for how live the recording feels.”
“The equipment I use is a big part of my sound. I have lots of ribbon mikes and some vintage Neumann tube mikes. I use top-of-the-line Apogee A/D converters. My specific angle always comes back to my being a musician. What I strive for in a recording is to recreate the feeling I get when I’m up on a stage with other musicians, playing my guitar. I tend to err on the side of less reverb, less compression, less EQ, because I’m after that feeling of being in the midst of the music.”
A major live recording by McDiarmid (and two other engineers, Countryman and James Farber) is Lines of Color, by Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, on Blue Note/ArtistShare. Truesdell conducts a world-class 25-piece orchestra playing previously unknown Gil Evans arrangements at the Jazz Standard in New York. Big jazz bands are famously difficult to record live. Lines of Color puts you in the believable presence of a great orchestra on the job. All the nuances of Gil Evans’s art are rendered, and when the full ensemble kicks in, we get to hear the crowd react to the crescendos. McDiarmid said, “We went in and miked every instrument individually, with the finest mikes we could get. It was a massive setup.”
Isolation booths—the reason players in studios are often “not in the same room with each other” —are not popular with musicians. But producers and engineers want to keep instruments separate in multitrack recordings —keep them from bleeding into nearby microphones. The decision whether to isolate or let the musicians play together is an example of how choices made for “sonics” can affect “performance,” to repeat those interrelated Stereophile cores. But even though McDiarmid acknowledges that studio recordings often struggle to sustain “that first-take feeling,” he understands their allure: “I’m an audiophile myself, and I just love a beautiful-sounding studio recording.” A place that has recently become a reliable source of “beautiful-sounding studio recordings” is Trading 8s, a studio in Paramus, New Jersey, that is owned and operated by Chris Sulit, a 36-year-old engineer who —there it is again—has a background in music. He studied orchestration and arranging, as well as engineering, at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He opened Trading 8s in 2013.
Sulit described it as a well-equipped professional facility in which he has tried hard to create the laid-back feeling of a home studio. “I think it’s been successful. Many musicians have told me they feel comfortable here,” he said in our interview. “Many musicians believe they play their best live.”
“I try to give them something special in my space, a vibe. It may not be the same energy as live, but it’s not a bad energy. I don’t do many live recordings. The studio is what I do, every day. I like having that control.”
A striking example of interdependent performance and sonics is Mood, Rich Perry’s 2016 album on SteepleChase, which Sulit recorded. Perry is one of the world’s greatest unsung tenor saxophone players. He plays original ideas with a sound like a velvet caress. Sulit: “I tried different microphones on Rich and ended up with one I hadn’t used before for saxophones, an AEA R44 ribbon mike. It has a more rounded-off top end. Rich was iso’ed”—isolated—”with a carpet under him. I placed the mike further away to get more sense of space, which kind of softened the whole thing.”
It works. Mood is a sonic dream state. There are no hard edges. The sound and the music are one seduction.
Sulit also used the R44 on Kirk Knuffke’s cornet on his 2017 SteepleChase album Cherryco, but there he was after a different result. He put Knuffke in a live room, with no carpet, and placed the mike closer. The incisive cornet sound has fire, but the flame is turned down a little.
In preparing this article, I talked to James Farber, one of the most decorated American jazz engineers. He has recorded more than 1000 albums and won six Grammy awards. Farber added some additional details to McDiarmid’s account of the extraordinary undertaking that was Ryan Truesdell’s Lines of Color. “I think we recorded six nights. The amount of preplanning that goes into a project like this is through the roof. Ryan and I spent hours discussing the space, the gear, the tracks. We landed on 32 tracks live, which meant 32 microphones. Tyler and I had to figure out how to get all those players, mikes, booms, music stands, and instruments including doubling horns all up on that stage, and we had to have a way for musicians to get on and off. I was a little terrified. Then you do a sound check, you check everything individually and get some levels, and then the audience comes in and everything changes, because the ambience of the club dries up with people in there. So, the moment of truth happens during that first song and they start playing and I’m listening on headphones in the dressing room with our recording rig, and I knew everything was going to be fine. OK, I was thrilled.”
Lines of Color, from 2015, was Truesdell’s second Gil Evans album. The first, in 2012, is one of the most important jazz recordings of the new millennium: Centennial, on ArtistShare. It was recorded by Farber in Avatar Studio in New York.
As vivid as Lines of Color sounds, with its in-the-moment existential truth, when you hear Centennial, you know instantly why people go to the trouble and expense of recording in studios. Centennial is bigger, fuller, richer, and so emotionally deeper. Farber told me how it was done. “There were about 35 musicians. We were able to have all the horns in the main room. The rhythm section was all in one room. Then in a smaller booth was the soloist and/or the vocalist, and in the other room were the miscellaneous instruments that changed from tune to tune and day to day: vibes, acoustic guitar, tabla.” Centennial opens with Dan Weiss’s tabla on “Punjab,” a never-before-recorded Gil Evans masterpiece. Hypnotic tabla beats ring out in a deep space, but Weiss was in fact “in the other room” in Avatar, at 441 W. 53rd in Manhattan.
As for the remarkable soloists, “Sometimes players left their positions and tip-toed into the sound-locked booth. Some solos were just played live in the main room. It depends on the background parts. If the background parts are tricky, then you want the soloist isolated from that. If live mistakes get into a solo, you’re kind of stuck with them. I think there were a couple of overdubbed solos.”
“On both recordings, Ryan completely drove the balances. He’d be there with the score and it would be, ‘OK, give me a tenth of a dB more on that phrase’: really subtle little changes to shape Gil’s music. Ryan wanted to bring out every sonority.”
Farber had instructive things to say about age-old audiophile issues like analog versus digital—and reverb. “Recording multitrack analog is really no longer an option. It’s too expensive. You can’t make edits on the spot, and you don’t have enough tracks. We record digitally, with Pro Tools. But Centennial was mixed on an analog deck. Mixing to two-track analog just glues everything together, in a musical way.
“Adding artificial ambience is a touchy subject. Because the Jazz Standard is so dry, Brian Montgomery, who mixed Lines of Color, added some slight reverb to give it a little depth. But it still sounds like the club it was recorded in. For Centennial, Ryan wanted it to sound as natural as possible, so the reverb is kind of minimal. But you have to add some. In a studio you close-mike everything, and you have to give it some space.”
Most of Farber’s enormous, distinguished body of work is studio-based. But, like most engineers (and most musicians, and most fans), he loves live recordings: “The energy is like nothing else.” He has done important work in the Village Vanguard, like Brad Mehldau’s The Art of the Trio, Volume Two(Nonesuch, 1997) and Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto, 2016) by the Fred Hersch Trio. They sound superb—and quite different. Farber attributes the differences to the fact that “Fred and Brad each have their own ideas of balance. I work for the artist.
It’s their record. Fred is more piano-forward. Brad likes a more three-equal-instruments kind of thing.”
Farber had one more important point to add: “You can’t make live recordings without the help of the club. The Jazz Standard and the Vanguard are super-accommodating. We kick the band out of the dressing room. In the Vanguard, we hang ambience mikes from the ceiling to get the live sound that’s coming through the PA, to get the crowd and also some distance and space. Basically, we disrupt things. Nobody talks about that.”
He’s right. Nobody talks about it. But it’s good to know. And knowing something about how recordings get made need not interfere with the illusion of being there—on the contrary: A premise of this article is that it actually helps.
I never found a Chet Baker recording that is truly exceptional, sonically. But I found some pretty good ones, like It Could Happen to You, recorded by Jack Higgins for Riverside in 1958 and reissued in JVC’s wonderful XRCD series in 1999. There is a picture of a handsome Baker on the cover, before drugs had laid him waste. I still listen to Chet Baker records and remember that night in Parnell’s.
The music is always what matters. As for sound quality and that being there quality, if pretty good is all you’ve got, you run with it.”